It hasn’t been a good week for politics in this country, especially for the libDems. The issue of student loans and tuition fees having exposed the promises made by them as being no more than words to con people out of their vote. Quite where this particular self inflicted mess will lead for the LibDems in the long run remains to be seen of course, but it’s not the only issue they seem happy to be doing U-turns on. One of the others of course being drugs policy where they seem to be going along with the prohibition mad Tory proposals at the heart of the new drugs strategy to be announced soon. As with the issue of student fees, there are some in the LibDems unhappy with the direction their party is heading.
The was an interesting short debate in the House of Lords last week triggered by the LibDem Lord Tavern who asked (full debate here)
whether, in the light of the recent report from the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs [ISCD] on the harmful effects of different classified and non-classified drugs, they will reconsider the present system of classification
The ISCD is the committee set up by Prof David Nutt who was sacked by the previous Labour Home Secretary Alan Johnson for undermining the drugs policy by suggesting the ABC system of classification should reflect the actual harms posed by drugs. This was after cannabis had been moved from class C to class B against the advice of the government’s own appointed experts which he headed, the AMCD..
That the ABC system no longer reflects the true harms drugs can cause is pretty obvious; MDMA (ecstasy) or magic mushrooms being rated alongside Heroin or crack cocaine for example undermines any claim of a scientific base, and it was openly admitted by the last government that moving cannabis back from C to B against expert advice was done to “send a message” that cannabis use was “unacceptable” in the view of politicians, as if anyone cares what they think.
An evidence based ABC system is something the government is utterly opposed to and uses some pretty strange logic to justify as Baroness Neville-Jones (Minister of State (Security), Home Office) – a Conservative – said:
My Lords, the Government do not intend to review the drug classification system established by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The criminal justice system expects – and the Government must provide – a stable and enduring system. The current system continues to serve that purpose
Even though it clearly doesn’t serve the purpose it was intended to serve and is based on little more than political rhetoric. Can it really be right to maintain a legal system which is based on nothing more that dogma because the criminal justice system “demands” it?
Lord Tavern tried again:
My Lords, this recent report is perhaps the most thorough analysis of the impact of different drugs not only on users but on others in society at large. If the Government believe in evidence-based policy, is it not obvious that, in light of this report and of many other reports that have reached similar conclusions, the present classification-with ecstasy in class A and cannabis in class B-is in no way based on evidence of either the physical or social impact of drugs?
What David Nutt’s latest paper also suggested was that Alcohol and tobacco are amongst the most damaging drugs to society and that any sensible drugs policy would include them as drugs. Lord Tavern added:
Will the Government further accept that they would be utterly irresponsible and failing in their duty to society if they did not provide much stronger disincentives to the indulgence of the abuse of alcohol, which comes top-by miles-of all other drugs in its impact on society as a whole?
The reply was perhaps predictable
My Lords, on the whole question of drugs classification, there is clearly no consensus about what constitutes evidence.
There isn’t? Then on what basis is the law founded – at least in theory – if not evidence of harm? What do politician claim to make the “judgements” on if not evidence?
The Government simply do not agree that a system of a sliding scale of harms, such as is suggested in the Nutt report, constitutes a good basis for government policy. We do not believe that structuring drug-harm classifications in the way that the recent report does would be better than the current basis for government policy.
The operative word there is “believe”; this is something this blog has touched on before, the whole policy of prohibition is not evidence based, it’s faith based. Prohibition is a policy politicians believe is effective but which is simply not supported by hard evidence of any kind, indeed there is much to show that it is in large part self defeating and causes far greater harm than properly controlled drug markets ever could.
Baroness Meacher (of no political party – a “crossbencher”) asked:
is the Minister aware that Mr Fedotov, who is the new executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, is urging Governments to put away their policies that criminalise drug users and to replace those policies with health policies? In the light of that advice from the United Nations, what plans does the Minister have to review the Misuse of Drugs Act?
To which the reply was
the Government certainly take seriously the need to engage the community in reducing the level of drugs misuse. Later this year, the Government will produce a drugs strategy to reinforce that side of their policy, but they do not agree that it is right and proper to decriminalise all use of drugs.
Careful watchers of political language will spot a subtle change there perhaps “do not agree that it is right and proper to decriminalise all use of drugs” seems to leave the door open to a new approach, but perhaps that’s just wishful thinking. It is also worth noting that prohibited drugs were not referred to as “controlled substances” in this debate at all, but as “classified” substances.
It sounds like we should hear about the new strategy in the next few weeks, but few are hopeful of anything other than more of the same, probably worse.
But what of alcohol and tobacco? Another LibDem, Baroness Hamwee asked a difficult question
My Lords, we tax alcohol, we regulate tobacco use and we criminalise drug use. The Minister may not want to use words such as “hypocritical” and “cynical”, but is there a consistency in this approach?
This was like a red flag to a drunk bull
My Lords, we believe that all drugs that are classified on the list are extremely harmful to society; we do not believe that alcohol taken in moderation is harmful to society. Clearly, there is alcohol abuse, but the Government already have a strategy-and we will add to it-on reducing the possibilities of that abuse. This Government are taking measures that are rather more stringent than those of the previous Administration.
So no acceptance of an inconsistency of approach, alcohol of course is the drug most often used by members of both houses and the hypocrisy is sickening. Cannabis of course is clearly capable of being used non-problematically, as are various other “classified” recreational drugs. It seems the idea of including their drug of choice as a drug is just too unacceptable to the government for reasons which have nothing to do with either evidence or logic.
In an attempt to discredit the report by Prof Nutt Lord Deben – a Conservative – made a truly outlandish claim
Will my noble friend take very great care before she takes seriously the recent report of this independent committee on drugs? Its judgment is based on a methodology that to most of us, when looked at carefully, is shown to be entirely flawed.
Quite what evidence he based that claim on isn’t clear, but Baroness Neville-Jones was clearly glad of the support and replied
the Government have confidence in the independent advice given by their own statutory commission and we trust that advice. I am inclined to agree with the comments just made by my noble friend.
The “statutory commission” she referred to of course is the ACMD, the body David Nutt was sacked from for apparently undermining government policy by promoting an evidence based approach to drug laws. Another LibDem Lord Willis of Knaresborough challenged this hypocrisy:
does the Minister agree that the proposal that Professor Nutt and Professor Blakemore put forward in the Lancet and in the recent report is based not only on their own evidence but on peer-reviewed evidence? What evidence does the Minister have to say that the misuse of alcohol and tobacco, which appear in the top quartile of the list in that report, is less harmful and creates fewer deaths than the rest of the drugs in the classifications A, B and C?
To which the strange reply was
I suggest that there is a real difference between alcohol and tobacco, which taken in moderation are not harmful to society, and the drugs on the classified list. I am afraid that there is no consensus between the conclusions reached by Professor Nutt and the evidence that he took.
Which is, of course, utter rubbish. It is true that alcohol can be used non-problematically as can many other drugs, but whether that applies to tobacco is highly questionable given it’s carcinogenic and addictive nature. A labour peer, Lord Faulkner of Worcester picked her up on this point:
would the noble Baroness care to reconsider that last answer and separate alcohol from tobacco? There is no safe use of tobacco; all government advice that has ever been offered on the subject is that, when tobacco is used in accordance with manufacturers’ instructions, it is a killer. Therefore, it is treated differently from alcohol?
She had to concede that point, thus somewhat undermining her own argument.
My Lords, I accept the trend of that comment from the noble Lord. It is indeed the case that tobacco is harmful, as he has just said. I think the House would agree that alcohol taken in moderation is not so harmful.
It was interesting and welcome to see the contribution from LibDem peers in this debate, they asked some good informed questions. Indeed before the formation of the present ConDem coalition, the LibDems had the closest thing to a sensible drugs policy of all the mainstream parties. For many years they had a document on the libDem website entitled “Honesty, Realism, Responsibility Proposals for the Reform of Drugs Law Policy Paper” which mysteriously vanished shortly before the last election, although Transform archived it here; it makes interesting reading.
The LibDem 2010 election manifesto stated
“Always base drugs policy on independent scientific advice, including making the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs completely independent of government.”
Which is a reasonable enough position to adopt. Sadly, even this utterly reasonable position looks like being dropped if rumours are to be believed. Now they are in a position of real influence it seems they are about to put their collective name to the new Tory inspired drugs policy based on more of the same failed ideas and unproven rhetoric. Insisting on an evidence based approach would totally undermine the present drug policy of course and force very real change, so the promise is quietly dropped.
It will be interesting to see if the party continues to back its leader Nick Clegg who seems hell-bent on trashing his party’s stated principles or whether the LibDems will be torn apart by the thought of well deserved annihilation at the polls if he is allowed to continue.